Food sanitation company accused of employing at least 31 children on graveyard shifts in slaughterhouses
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Food sanitation company accused of employing at least 31 children on graveyard shifts in slaughterhouses

Jul 30, 2023

A leading sanitation company is accused of employing dozens of children to clean the killing floors of slaughterhouses during graveyard shifts, the Department of Labor announced.

Packers Sanitation Services, Inc., or PSSI, a company contracted to work at slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities throughout the county, allegedly employed at least 31 kids — one as young as 13 — to work overnight cleaning shifts at three facilities in Nebraska and Minnesota, according to court documents filed on Wednesday.

Those practices would violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, which prohibits "oppressive child labor" and minors from working in any kind of hazardous employment, according to the complaint. The Department of Labor's Child Labor Regulations designates many roles in slaughterhouse and meatpacking facilities as hazardous for minors.

In the court filing, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh asked the Federal District Court of Nebraska to issue a temporary restraining order and nationwide preliminary injunction against the company to stop it from employing minors while the Labor Department continues its investigation.

Initial evidence indicates the company may also employ more kids under similar conditions at 400 other sites across the country, in addition to the 31 minors employed at three sites that investigators already confirmed, according to the complaint.

The court partially granted the Department of Labor's request in a Thursday filing. That order requires PSSI to "immediately cease and refrain from employing oppressive child labor" and comply with the Department of Labor's investigation.

A hearing is set for Nov. 23 to discuss whether the order will be extended, modified or dissolved.

In a statement to NBC News, a spokesperson for PSSI said it "has an absolute company-wide prohibition against the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of that policy —period."

The spokesperson added that the company mandates the use of the federal E-Verify system for new hires, "as well as extensive training, document verification, biometrics, and multiple layers of audits."

"While rogue individuals could of course seek to engage in fraud or identity theft, we are confident in our company's strict compliance policies and will defend ourselves vigorously against these claims."

The spokesperson added that executives were "surprised" by the DOL filing given that the company "has been cooperating with their inquiry, producing extensive documents and responses."

The Department of Labor did not immediately respond to an inquiry about PSSI's claims of compliance and cooperation.

The company, which has been owned by a series of private equity funds since 2007, says it employs 17,000 employees at more than 700 locations nationwide, according to its website.

The Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division began its investigation into PSSI on Aug. 24, when it received a tip from law enforcement that the company may be employing children, the complaint said.

Officials executed search warrants at two plants owned by food processing company JBS USA — in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota — and at a Turkey Valley Farms poultry processing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. Searches were also conducted at PSSI's local offices in Grand Island and Worthington, which recruit workers, and the company's Keiler, Wisconsin, corporate office.

In a statement, JBS USA's chief ethics and compliance officer Michael Koenig said the allegations against PSSI "represent a clear violation of our ethical policies" if true.

"We are immediately launching an independent, third-party audit at all of our facilities to thoroughly evaluate this situation," the statement continued. "JBS has zero tolerance for child labor, discrimination or unsafe working conditions for anyone working in our facilities."

Turkey Valley Farms general manager Les Goff said in a statement the company "takes these allegations very seriously" and is reviewing the matter internally.

"We expect all contractors to share our commitment to the health and safety of any individuals working in our facilities and to adhere to these principles that foster a safe work environment as well as to all applicable federal and state labor laws," the statement continued.

"We are closely monitoring the Department of Labor's actions with regard to Packers Sanitation Services Inc. and will take all appropriate action, based on the outcome of the investigation."

Labor department officials also subpoenaed school records, interviewed confidential sources — including minors who worked in the facilities — and conducted surveillance in which they allegedly saw minors entering the facilities to work night shifts as part of the investigation, the complaint stated.

The investigation found that minors cleaned the killing floors and various machines — including meat and bone cutting saws and a grinding machine — during the graveyard shifts, according to the complaint.

PSSI employed at least a dozen 17-year-olds across the three slaughterhouses, fourteen 16-year-olds, three 15-year-olds, one 14-year-old and one 13-year-old, the complaint said.

Interviews with the kids — which were conducted in Spanish, their first language, according to the complaint — revealed that several children began their shifts at the facilities at 11 p.m. and worked until 5, 6 or 7 a.m. Some worked up to six or seven days a week.

School records showed that one 14-year-old, who worked at the Grand Island facility from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. five to six days a week, from December 2021 to this past April, fell asleep in class and missed school after suffering injuries from chemical burns. At least two other minors also suffered chemical burns, the complaint states.

The complaint said that during the investigation, PSSI managers "attempted to thwart or tamper" with the collection of evidence, including by attempting to obstruct investigators’ employee interviews by surrounding the rooms where they were being conducted and holding eye contact with the minors.

Managers also attempted to hide or delete documents, including work-related text messages and incident/accident reports, the complaint states.

Late last month, the Department of Labor began reviewing another 47 locations where PSSI employs workers — which investigators suspect include more children, the complaint alleges, pointing to photographs from clock-in records at eight other plants that appear to show children.

"While Wage and Hour is continuing to pour over records to identify such children, it is slow, painstaking work. Yet, the children working overnight on the kill floor of these slaughterhouses cannot wait," the complaint states.

Incidents of injuries and even deaths employed by PSSI are not new.

The company has had a troubled worker safety record in recent years: three PSSI workers have died on the job since 2018, including one who was decapitated cleaning a chicken chiller, according to Occupational Health and Safety Administration records highlighted in a March report by the watchdog group Private Equity Stakeholder Project.

And four others had accidents that resulted in amputations, according to the report.

Blackstone, the private equity fund that owns PSSI, vehemently disagreed with the report's findings.

"The so-called ‘report’ — which is riddled with errors and misinformation — is from a fringe, biased anti-private-equity shell group," Blackstone spokesperson Matthew Anderson said in a statement. With regard to four total deaths at PSSI that were recorded by OSHA since 2018, Blackstone added, "In those cases: one was clearly determined to be a non-work-related death; in the second OSHA did not issue a citation to PSSI or otherwise fault our company; and in the other two matters existing PSSI safety protocols were not followed."

Last year, OSHA cited PSSI for 17 violations for failing to train workers about the dangers of liquid nitrogen after a nitrogen leak killed six people who worked for the Foundation Food Group at a poultry plant in Gainesville, Georgia. Those killed were not employees of PSSI, but PSSI was responsible for cleaning the plant and for making sure its own workers were safe there, OSHA said.

A PSSI spokesperson said the company's employees were not on site at the time of the leak and were not involved with the production process or mechanical maintenance of the equipment.

A 2017 analysis by the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group, found that PSSI has some of the worst rates of workplace injuries in the country.

PSSI described the report as flawed.

When they are hired by PSSI, workers sign paperwork assuming the risk of death and injury on the job, NBC News reported last year. Many of its employees have felonies on their records and had difficulty finding work elsewhere — which advocates like the Private Equity Stakeholder Project argue discourages workers from reporting dangerous conditions out of fear that they could lose their jobs.

According to a Department of Labor report that NBC News obtained through FOIA last year, OSHA opened inspections into PSSI 56 times in a span of five years, from 2015 through 2020, and issued 38 citations against the company.

Late nights, early mornings and chemical burns